The winds of change have finally given us Flames general manager Craig Conroy. The next step for Conroy will be to figure out who the team’s new bench boss will be.
The Flames have amateur scouting meetings over the next few days but their search for a head coach is underway, according to Conroy. He’s already made it clear that he wants someone who can work harmoniously with him and management while also being a leader and displaying passion. The new head coach will also need to bring ideas that will unlock offensive abilities from his group, especially from players like Jonathan Huberdeau who underwhelmed last season.
“Offensively, I’d like to see us be more creative from the red line in,” Conroy said. “If you watch practice and you guys see the amazing things that these guys do nowadays. I want them to be creative. I want them to free-wheel and do what they do. You know what, you’re going to turn pucks over and then you back check. From the red line back, I want structure. I think you have to have structure. People can’t be indecisive in the D-zone. They need to play with a structure and a purpose. If they do that, we’ll get the puck going the other.
“Really, the fun part is playing in the offensive zone. But I want to let the Huberdeaus, Kadris, Lindholms, I want them to have fun and be creative and do what they do best.”
By now, you’ve seen a handful of names surface in the rumour mill. In Pierre LeBrun’s latest column, Ryan Huska, Mitch Love, Andrew Brunette and Gerard Gallant have been confirmed as candidates. But how good of a fit are they for Conroy’s vision? For this story, we’ve even added a few other names on top of the ones Pierre mentioned and evaluated their credentials as well.
The internal candidates
The reigning AHL coach two years running is primed to be a candidate for an NHL job next season. So much so that you have to wonder if interest in him outside the organization grows, how will that play a role in Calgary’s coaching search? Love has coached a top-10 offence in each of his last two seasons with the Flames’ minor-league affiliate and has played a crucial role in nurturing prospects like Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary, Jérémie Poirier and Walker Duehr. For a team that wants an infusion of young talent in its lineup, familiarity with that talent will serve as an advantage for Love.
In addition, the atmosphere and culture he’s fostered at his practices have allowed his players to have fun. If you spent an hour at a Wranglers practice, you are bound to find guys in full voice, hyped with energy, and guys might even hug each other in celebration. A much more relaxed atmosphere compared to the Flames’ own skates recently. It’s fair to ask if that will translate to the NHL level. But when you consider that Conroy wants his players to be in an improved environment compared to last season, Love’s tactics can’t be overlooked.
Huska is responsible for the penalty kill and defence with the Flames, among the brighter spots for the team in a disappointing year. The Flames’ penalty kill was tied for fourth among NHL teams in the regular season while allowing the third-fewest shots per game. Those statistics would obviously shine brighter if the goaltending was better, and even if the defence didn’t lapse at crucial times.
Huska has worked his way up from a promising junior coach who got his team to compete for a Memorial Cup to AHL head coach developing talents like Rasmus Andersson and Andrew Mangiapane to the present day as an NHL assistant coach. In our limited exposure to Huska through the media, he comes across as an intelligent mind who is able to communicate concepts effectively.
If Huska is hired, would the Flames need another offensive-minded assistant to guide him? But even if Huska doesn’t win the job, the Flames would be better off keeping him as an assistant. He would serve as some form of continuity and familiarity for Flames players as they start hearing from a new voice.
What does Muller have on his internal competition? He has the most NHL head coaching experience of anyone on the Flames’ bench right now thanks to his stops in Montreal — he filled in for Claude Julien during the 2020 bubble season when Julien had a stent installed in a coronary artery — and in Carolina nearly a decade ago. That is in addition to Muller’s stops in St. Louis as an assistant and a brief AHL head coaching stint. In Calgary, Muller served as a good cop to Darryl Sutter’s bad cop while also running the team’s power play.
His experience could help Muller in an interview with the Flames, but he was also in charge of a power play that fell from 10th in the NHL in 2021-22 to 19th this past year. It’s a disappointing fall considering they added a power play force in Huberdeau and another veteran in Nazem Kadri last offseason. If the goal is to increase the offensive capabilities of this Flames team, Muller does not seem like the obvious candidate to do that. If the Flames wanted to keep him around because of his experience and familiarity, he could always remain in his associate role. But the team desperately needs a change on their power play and it could make Muller expendable as a result.
The external candidates
If the goal is to improve the offence, there might be no better external candidate than Brunette. He took over the Florida Panthers for Joel Quenneville and it resulted in a Presidents’ Trophy as the best regular season team and the league’s best offence with 25 more goals than the next best team. Huberdeau’s best season as a pro came under Brunette while playing on a team that constantly attacked the blue line with pace and allowed Huberdeau space to maneuver around and make plays with confidence.
When Brunette wasn’t retained in Florida, he moved on to New Jersey to become an assistant alongside Lindy Ruff. Brunette took charge of the team’s forwards and power play, helping to turn the Devils into a top-five offence in the NHL in goals for and goals per game. The Devils had the 19th-best offence before Brunette’s arrival. Brunette will be a hot commodity for many job vacancies, including the Flames, because of the success he’s achieved offensively.
Gallant is a player’s coach with experience in different markets, including a dream Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2018 with the Vegas Golden Knights. Yes, there’s the obvious connection with him and Huberdeau — both men even caught up with each other after the Rangers visited the Flames in mid-February — that dates all the way back to junior.
He’s capable of squeezing success out of a roster in the first year with his new team, but seemingly has a short life span everywhere he’s been — He hasn’t coached a team longer than three seasons since he first became a coach during the 2003-04 season. Considering the age and stage of the Flames’ core, perhaps there’s a wacky argument to be made that you could hire Gallant as a short-term fix. But even then, that all depends on what you’ve done with those pending free agents.
But his rep might have taken a significant hit after being fired by the New York Rangers following a first-round exit against the New Jersey Devils. Gallant and his Rangers had a 2-0 series lead, but failed to adjust against an opponent that clearly did and eventually lost four straight games. Even worse, players reportedly voiced their displeasure with Gallant in their exit meetings following the elimination. Should the Flames want to hire another divisive figure considering they just fired one in Darryl Sutter?
Tanguay brings familiarity as a former Flames player, but he’s also focused himself on offence as an assistant coach. Following two seasons with the AHL’s Iowa Wild as an assistant, he joined Jeff Blashill’s staff in Detroit in 2021 with the intention of fixing the Red Wings’ power play. This season, the Red Wings owned the league’s 17th-best, improving from 26th during the 2021-22 season. The Red Wings had the second-worst power play prior to Tanguay’s arrival. Tanguay can also say he’s played a role in helping along a burgeoning, young Red Wings core with Lucas Raymond, Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno to go alongside a centrepiece like Dylan Larkin.
My Detroit colleague Max Bultman wrote an interesting article about Tanguay in 2021, where he describes how the former Flames forward constantly used video and on-ice drills to get the best from players on the power play. He would be an intriguing, progressive hire as a first-time head coach.
If the Flames want a former player who could be a head coach, Savard would be an intriguing option. His head coaching experience is limited, similar to Brunette’s, but has also had success. He guided the Windsor Spitfires to the best record in the OHL’s Western Conference this season and the league’s best offence. Savard has been out looking for NHL jobs and if his Spitfires continue to be near the top of the pack in goals for, it won’t be long before he gets his opportunity somewhere.
Last seen as the Vancouver Canucks head coach, Green has always been labelled as a player’s coach who is analytics-friendly. In addition to being familiar with the Flames as a Pacific Division rival, Green has also coached Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli and even pending UFA Troy Stecher.
But poor results with the Canucks — they only made the playoffs once during his coaching tenure — led to him being dismissed during the 2021-22 campaign. Among those struggles for the Canucks? A failure of scoring goals with players like Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser in the fold. Considering what the Flames need, he might have to make a significant impression and show he’s truly learned from his time in Vancouver.
(Photo of Gerard Gallant: Danny Wild / USA Today)